The government’s concern over human rights is driven by the international community, not by a genuine interest in protecting the rights of the people, the head of the UN rights center in Phnom Penh said Wednesday.
“The main reason why human rights is addressed is donor pressure,” said Rita Reddy, director of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia.
Reddy, speaking to dozens of women gathered at the monthly meeting of the Women’s International Group of Cambodia, said the government constantly criticizes her office and wants it closed.
She also gave a bleak view of the level of abuses here, saying her office deals with one human rights crisis after another, and that Cambodia is “a long way from the establishment of rule of law.”
Reddy also said the level of fear among people in Cambodia is very high compared to other countries where she has worked, such as Rwanda and Burundi.
“I’ve never felt it [the level of fear] anywhere else,” she said. “People feel like anything could happen at any time.”
Although Reddy has been on the job for just a few months, she is already well known because of an interview published in the Phnom Penh Post in March in which she suggested Cambodians may have a genetic predisposition to violence.
The remarks prompted a storm of criticisms by rights groups and the government. Reddy said she was misquoted and held private meetings with some critics to explain her comments.
Khieu Kanharith, a government spokesman, said the government no longer has a problem with Reddy. But, he said, the comments she made Wednesday do not accurately reflect the human rights situation in Cambodia.
“We do not take care of human rights because of pressure from donor countries,” Khieu Kanharith said. “We are concerned because the government cares about the people. She should follow more closely the activity here.”
One human rights worker said Reddy’s comments on Wednesday are too defeatist. “There are times and places to say things,” he said. “The question is whether it’s constructive.”
Reddy did say progress has been made in recent months, citing a letter by the Ministry of Interior sent to the governor of Prey Veng province two days ago. The letter questioned why the governor was granting amnesties to criminals convicted of rape and other violent crimes.
“Things are beginning to work,” Reddy said. “Many times, I feel desperate and despair, but we have to be hopeful if it’s going to get anywhere.”
However, when Reddy was asked what percentage of cases presented to the government have a positive outcome, she acknowledged that the number is very low. She said the Cambodia office has sent a total of 300 to 400 cases to the government since it opened in 1993.
“For the politically motivated cases, maybe they won’t be solved at all, like the grenade attack,” said Reddy, referring to those who were killed in 1997 during a rally led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy. “The authorities probably know who did these things, but for reasons of their own, they don’t want to say.”
Reddy, who has worked as a lawyer in Malaysia, Singapore and England, said her office is investigating a report of a murder in Kampot province’s Chhuk district that could be politically motivated. A Funcinpec Party district chief and his wife were reportedly murdered on Monday.
Reforming the judiciary is one of the biggest challenges facing Cambodia, with corruption, ignorance and lack of access to justice acting as the obstacles, Reddy said. “Only 5 percent of the judges are legally qualified,” she said. “The majority are lay people.”
One of the main ways that could help rid the legal system of corruption is increasing the pay for judges, Reddy said. “Judges get $15 a month,” she said. “Our drivers make $350 a month.”
Programs such as judicial mentoring, human rights education and legal assistance are helping to improve the situation in Cambodia, she said. “I am hopeful that some of our training programs and other things will rub off so that it will be sustained,” she said.